The geographical sparsity of increasingly aged rural populations coupled with the loss of public transport and in many cases declining village high streets has raised fears over the long-term sustainability of communities.
As well as a loss of public and private services, poor broadband and mobile phone coverage combined with steep house prices, has damaged the desire and capability of young families to stay in or move to deeply rural areas.
To address the situation, as well as a planning system that is better resourced to tackle housing affordability, the provision of better broadband can play a crucial role, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy heard.
For that to happen, a radical rethink is needed to compel network operators to focus more on delivering services to remote parts of the countryside, rural leaders told the committee.
Christopher Price, policy director at the Country Land and Business Association, and Jeremy Leggett, vice-chairman of Action with Communities in Rural England, gave evidence to the Lords committee earlier today in Westminster as part of its inquiry into the impact of government policies on rural economic growth.
Asked about the impacts of poor rural public transport links, Mr Leggett said young people in rural communities face a “very tangible and stark difference” to accessing the same post-16 educational opportunities as young people in urban areas.
“Transport is expensive and with the ending of educational maintenance allowance at least one of the routes that enabled less well off young people to be able to choose their route into higher education was closed off,” he said.
“Unless we fully understand the economics of how these services work in rural areas, we will never work out how to mitigate factors in order to get an equity of provision for rural areas... that is true across social and health care, across education and a whole range of public and private services.”
But Mr Price said: “Many of the things that people claim better services are required for can be dealt with just as well by improving online connectivity.
“You can do banking online. The chances are the nearest settlement hasn’t got a bank in it anymore anyway.
“The fixation on public transport as opposed to connectivity is distorting so much. Focusing on public transport is very much a 20th century approach.”
Mr Leggett argued that people who live in rural areas value “face to face community life” and older people at risk of isolation would prefer company with others rather than online connections with people living elsewhere.
Mr Price was adamant however that better connectivity and how this could help younger generations stay in rural areas would combat social isolation.
“If we can make existing communities more sustainable by recognising what they actually need then that situation is dealt with,” Mr Price said.
Mr Leggett called for new regulation and licence conditions to ensure that where profits are easily made by providing broadband to urban users, companies must use the profits to offer more equal access in rural areas.